The purpose of running a screen play in football is to move the defense with some kind of misdirection, then get the ball to an athlete out in space with a convoy of blockers in front of them. Running a screen play is a great way to eliminate the defensive line from the play and force the defense to run and make tackles out in open space. If you are playing against a tough defense, using screen plays is an effective way of getting them out of position and creating space for your players to move the football.
Using the Throwback Screen
The throwback screen is a fake hitch screen to the flanker, who catches and pretends to run with the ball, but instead throws it back to the QB or RB who have several offensive lineman blocking the screen out in front. Throwback screens allow your offense to get the entire defense moving one way and then attack them in the opposite direction. This gets defences out of position and creates a lot of open space for your players to work with. The important thing to remember is to make sure that the QB throws the ball backwards to the receiver so that the receiver is then able to make a forward pass back to the QB or RB.
Play 1 – QB Throwback Screen
The first variation of the throwback screen occurred during the week 12 matchup between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. It is a good example of the offense being able to gain an extra number with the QB and catch the defense out of position.
On this play the Bears are lined up in a 3×1 broken bunch formation with the single side receiver squeezed in tight to the box. The flanker (Z) motions in towards the bunch formation then shuffles away from the line of scrimmage on the snap to get behind the QB so the ball can be thrown backwards. The QB throws the ball to the flanker then slowly shuffles out to set up the screen. The slot and inside receivers set up to pass protect for the flanker and make it look like they are blocking for the hitch screen. The X receiver runs a post route across the field to clear out the safety and any other defenders in coverage. The RB runs a vertical route to clear out the defense and draw attention away from the throwback screen.
As you can see, this play gets the entire Lions defense running out to cover the initial hitch screen from the bunch formation and opens up the entire left hand side of the field. This creates a lot of space for the throwback screen to the QB. Despite having a 4v2 numbers advantage, the Bears offensive line do a poor job of blocking and let the defense off the hook. However, Bears QB Daniel Jones is not an athletic QB and not a dangerous runner with the football, so it would likely have been a far bigger play if the QB was someone who could actually run the ball more effectively. Either way, they still got the first down and kept the drive moving.
Play 2 – RB Throwback Screen
This variation of the throwback screen is a good example of what to do when you have an un-athletic QB who can’t run the ball well. The example below is from the 2017 AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars boasted an incredibly tough defensive unit that season.
On this play the Patriots are lined up in the same 3×1 broken bunch formation we saw from the Bears earlier, only in this example the single side receiver is lined up in the Tight End position instead of the squeeze flanker position (it’s practically still the same formation).
Once again, the flanker (Z) motions in towards the bunch formation then shuffles away from the line of scrimmage on the snap to get behind the QB so the ball can be thrown backwards. The QB fakes the handoff to the RB and throws the ball to the flanker, then just stands at the line of scrimmage to get out of the way of the screen. The RB slowly shuffles out towards the sideline to get outside the defenders and set up the screen. The slot and inside receivers set up to pass protect for the flanker and make it look like they are blocking for the hitch screen. The TE (Y) runs a post route across the field to clear out the safety and any other defenders in coverage.
The Patriots ran this play once again in the 2019 Week 1 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. You can see how much this misdirection is able to move the defense and clear out an enormous amount of space for the RB on the throwback screen.
The San Francisco 49ers copied the Patriots’ example the following week, running the exact same play in their 2019 Week 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Even though the defense doesn’t flow as hard to the hitch screen as we have seen other teams do, it still moves them out of position enough to set up a rather easy 16 yard pickup and first down.
Moving Tough Defenses to Create Open Space
As you can see, creative play calls such as the throwback screen almost completely eliminate defensive lines from being a factor, while also forcing defences to run sideline to sideline to make tackles out in space. I often see teams get into a rut when they come up against good defenses who play aggressive and dominate the line of scrimmage. These defenses pride themselves on making it as tough as possible for any offense to move the ball and score points on them. If these defenses make it difficult on you, make it difficult on them by running plays (like throwback screens) that involve elements of misdirection, get the ball to your athletes in space and challenge the defense to make difficult tackles out in the open field. By doing this you take their advantages away from them and put your offense in favourable positions.
If you have any questions or would like to add to this discussion, please feel free to comment below.
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